Politics, Prince Hal, and the Makings of a Leader: On November 3, 2008, the Shakespeare Society will host celebrated Shakespeareans Liev Schreiber and Professor David Scott Kastan in an evening of performance and commentary about Shakespeare’s Henry V. For more information, visit www.shakespearesociety.org.
The Shakespeare Society, who for the past eleven years has hosted big Shakespeare names both theatrical and academic (Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, Marjorie Garber, Michael Cumpsty, James Shapiro, Christopher Plummer, Patrick Stewart, Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt, and the list goes on…) offered yet another Shakespeare-inspired evening on September 15 with “Lyrics by W. Shakespeare,” moderated by Robert Pinsky. The Society Executive and Artistic Director Michael Sexton, briefly updating the audience on Society upcoming events, warmly introduced the three-time U.S. Poet Laureate with accolades and thanks. With modest acknowledgement Pinsky began a most charming evening filled with poetry and song.
The first selection for the evening—“Full Fathom Five” –hailed from the early 17thC English composer, Robert Johnson (Ariel’s song from The Tempest, Act I, Scene ii). Pinsky noted that the light and eerie melody could possibly be the original version performed when Shakespeare first wrote the play. Young mezzo-soprano Sarah Kleeman skillfully sang Ariel’s haunting melody as well as Thomas Arne’s (mid-18thC English composer) “Spring” from Act V, Scene ii of Love’s Labour’s Lost, highlighting the charming ditties and rich metaphors. Vaughan Williams’s “Winter” from Love’s Labour’s Lost took Arne’s melodic play further, using the onomatopoeia of the lyrics to write its chiming music. Equal Voices, a dexterous six-person a cappella group, performed the darkly Victorian song with delicious precision.
Carol Woods—star of stage, screen, and song, and currently enjoying her role as Matron “Mama” Morton in an extended Broadway run and tour of “Chicago”—brought a light, bluesy voice to the concert with Raymond Bokhour’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” from As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii, ushering in the sounds of Shakespeare in the 20th century. After Woods sang, Pinsky began a delightful exposition on the history of sonnets, including the beginning of the English sonnet craze in 1586 and the adaptation of Petrarch’s idealistic love into stately courtly love. Sonnets were romantic, but they served to court both the monarch’s favor and a mistress’s eye. Pinsky concluded succinctly that the sonnets were intended to express how much pain the writer could endure and thus somehow make him more attractive. Pinsky adds, “Look at how eloquently I can describe how cruel she is to me—would you like to go to bed with me?”
To exemplify Pinsky’s point, Broadway star and inspiring vocal soloist Darius de Haas sang Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s collaboration on Sonnet 147, “My Love Is As a Fever,” evoking black and white images of wounded love in smoky cafes. Pinsky admitted that the sonnet set to jazz leaned towards melodrama, but he felt so strongly about this rendition that he recommended Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder” (1957) to the audience as a follow up to the sonnet. Transitioning back to the plays was Jeanine Tesori’s “Come Away, Death” from Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene ii. Michael Cerveris, who touts on and off Broadway Shakespearience, also performed Cymbeline’s “Fear No More” from Act IV, Scene ii, composed by Stephen Sondheim for the 1974 version of “The Frogs.” Pinsky made additional comments regarding Sondheim’s choice to exclude the last few lines of the song, which, in effect, changes the original context.
All the participants performed admirably, but Robert Pinsky was clearly the star that illuminated the poetry as well as the concert as a whole. His commanding presence and strong, noble voice held the verse securely, gently guiding words into aural harmonies. The interplay between Pinsky reading lyrics as poetry, then having them sung as songs emphasized the fluidity and versatility of Shakespeare’s language. Pinsky commented later in the program, “Spoken poetry can create emotion as immediately and as reliably as music,” pulling the two main themes of the night into one concise phrase. He talked about the characters as if they were intimate friends: his hippy Uncle, the Duke of Arden from As You Like It; his melancholy older brother Orsino, who is “in love with being in love, in love with himself in love, and in love with hearing himself talk about love.” His frank discussion of a sonnet’s true purpose didn’t diminish its beauty or its reality. It showed Pinsky as an appreciator of Shakespeare with a poetic spirit—a true asset to the Shakespeare community at large.